Lovers & madmen have seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.
The lunatic, the lover, and the poet
Are of one imagination all compact.
from A Midsummer Night’s Dream
My grandmother always said I was such a happy baby. I was. All those smiling pictures prove it. They reveal nothing about the circumstances that stimulated my brain to create certain sensations, and made sustaining the happiness pathways more difficult when I became an adult. That I have manic-depression was not distinguished until I was in my thirties, though certainly since adolescence I had had fits of moodiness, melancholy and occasional moments of such joy as I cannot describe. My family had chalked it up to congenital eccentricity and teenage angst. For me, the world I felt came from Soul and spoke to me powerfully through nature, art, music and, especially, the literary arts. Writing made sense of my life, brought me great happiness, and created a conversation with deepest Self that is not to be found anywhere else.
As I re-examine my creative journey it is impossible for me to distinguish the peculiarities of manic-depression from a more universal experience of the creative process. Not coincidentally the poets, and all the great artists, to whom I was most drawn were ones I later learned shared my “mind” (having depression or manic-depression)—and it was their truths that moved me and revealed most poignantly the secrets of life. (Michelangelo, Van Gogh, Handel, Emerson, Robert Louis Stevenson, Henry James, Blake, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Keats, Whitman, Joseph Conrad, and Virginia Woolf, to name a few.) Do I know what I know, or do I know what I know because of manic-depression’s chemical circuitry?
I was a joy junkie from the start. From earliest memory I was agitated by an aesthetic sensibility: by this I mean the shape color motion and design of the world burned into me. Without knowing exactly what was “beauty” or ugliness” I reacted profoundly to an inner judgment of beauty and ugliness. It began for me with the memory of a slant of sun on a gray slate floor when I was three. My memory was acute, my feelings raw. I sought the agitation my sense of “beauty” excited in me. I found it in certain frames—a particular line between the red barn and an old maple growing up out of its foundation, twisted bits of rusty metal, my father singing me to sleep, the sound (oh, glorious!) of certain words!
I must have been three or four when unknowingly I became a reverent initiate into the Word World. Through songs, conversations, books, the music of that world came to haunt me sweetly. “Soporific” was my first big word, thanks to the Beatrix Potter’s lettuce-eating Flopsy bunnies. It intrigued me. “Truncated” came next. Driving to pre-school one morning I asked my father what the funny “baby” busses were. He gave me the word, and counting “truncated” busses became our morning ritual thereafter. What words! They tasted. They sounded what they were, and I sensed their power (it was not a great conceptual leap later, when manic, to understand why chanting and incantations have such energetic influence.)
Once I overcame an initial difficulty learning to read, I busied myself with acquiring more words. I was voracious. Any books too difficult, I demanded to be read to me. Obligingly, I was introduced to Treasure Island, A Little Princess, the exotic streets of Kim (the indoctrination of an anglophile.) There seemed no disjunction between my rugged life as a tomboy and the heady world of books. I was strong-willed Jo March, sly Odysseus even as I was a little girl growing up in the privileged ease of a patrician New England town. Living in Concord, I took history for granted, accepted the fine education, learned Emerson by osmosis and loved the sturdy long civilized land of river, fields and trees. My friends and I were master-frog catchers, tree climbers, and swing jumpers. Yet, the hours in books were as real to me. Their beauty was distilled by the filtering sensibility of the author, while life demanded constant vigilance to fashion as the dictate of my inner aesthetic demanded. Then too, I needed the escape.
This idyllic childhood was punctuated by disjunctive sorrows—my mother’s “nervous breakdown” and hospitalization when I was four, my parents’ ensuing divorce—respective remarriages, my uncle’s suicide when I was twelve, my mother’s brain aneurysm when she was thirty-seven which left her in a vegetative state for sixteen years until her death. All these could have been enough to engender depression, but in the proverbial family closet were relatives with alcoholism, agoraphobia, manic-depression and practically every eccentricity imaginable.
(One of my favorite family stories concerns my father’s great-grandfather, a successful, beloved and upstanding citizen by all accounts. He was a bear of a man–three-piece suited, tall, longhaired and bewhiskered in 19th-century fashion. On summer eves, he would sit himself near the edge of the pond at the back of his farm, a bamboo rod in hand. He would ring a great cowbell. Before the last clang had faded, the water’s smooth surface erupted in purposeful ripples. In a moment, a dozen giant bullfrogs arranged themselves at his feet. A wriggling white mouse was proffered to their beamy mouths. I have a photo—the mouse a blur of frantic motion at the end of the line. He lived into his nineties and enjoyed a swim each day, especially when it required a hole to be cut in the ice….)
My personal sorrows were unsought for and out of my control; to say nothing of the ones I would make for myself. As a child, I sailed through them with the joy of imagination as a strong yet opaque veneer over the losses I experienced. Then, becoming myself and finding my voice were not nearly as neat as my narrative suggests. My fascination with expression began with “making” things. I had a neat hand and was a fine draughtsman by the age of eleven. Both my parents drew well, and since my architect father’s office was at home, an abundance of pens, paper and markers were available to me. Both parents were encouraging. My mother took me to art museums, my grandmother to symphony and church, and I looked and looked, and listened and listened until I thought I would burst with it all. I loved playing with clay, the rolling, molding, rubbing smoothing, and squeezing provided both a visceral and kinesthetic pleasure (if not a sadistic one—when exasperated, I could flatten it in a moment.) I knew then I would be a sculptor.
The dabbling with art and music, the years of writing required journals for 7th and 8th grade gave way to angst-ridden (dread purple) prose of adolescence. I had made a transition from being required to write to wanting to write, until I noticed one day, during college sometime, that my paints and inks had grown dusty with neglect. Journals were piling up. I understood then that words most accurately created and reflected an inner vision. I had found my way.
Language, then, became the medium of my most personal expression, the one I felt most skilled in and therefore, I suppose, it felt most effortless. Through the great painters, musicians, and poets who had inspired and called to me, I came to recognize a certain brutality in beauty. Beauty is an insatiable and jealous master (or mistress, as the Rose in Le Petit Prince reveals). This may point to an explanation for why creative people are often so difficult to live with. They reach after some ecstatic sensation only achieved through original recognition. Some artists, in the throes of mood swings, are compelled by the penetrating quality of mania to capture it. No other experience will do. It is there in Coleridge’s moment of epiphany, Woolf’s moment of being—once perceived already past. Ordinary reality prevails so another apprehension of joy must be sought.
This seeking requires a single-mindedness that brooks no interruption; this reaching after beauty knows no rest, and it is this that makes it brutal. It demands all, and gives nothing but some dangerously addicting inner satisfaction—the Holy Grail a person who knows mania often resists giving up. As a young child I had sought that feeling by climbing fragile treetops, intoxicated by daring. I had run fast through field grass, until exhausted, to test my limits of endurance. In winter, I would skate fast in the freedom of speed until I tripped and tumbled on the ice. Pain did not deter me. I made pain to be as essential as night to recovering that suspended place of joy. I was ignorant then that for a nature such as my own, the debt of depression was yet to be paid.
Writing my undergraduate thesis on Virginia Woolf, I began unraveling Woolf’s understanding of her own process and discovered a way into articulating my own. I found in her a kindred spirit; felt often as if she and I were one, so parallel was her reality to mine. I knew my process had everything to do with language, something to do with “memory,” “inspiration” and “time passing.” And much to do with “sustained struggle” and what I made words mean. The process is anything but linear. There is overlapping, backtracking, swerving in unexpected directions (some fruitful, some not) blind alleys, bright byways, so that creating resembles not so much a straight line, as it does a drunken man’s path through an unknown city to an unknown hotel.
I emphasize remembering because it is the source of creation, even if it is the fiction we make of what we remember. Creating is a natural extension for the manic-depressive mind: it looks to make everything fit into a cosmic theme somehow (the imagined South of Faulkner, Shakespeare’s Denmark, and Homer’s Troy) through seeking patterns, connections and meanings. “In the beginning there was darkness….” It invents everything—all our myths of Self. It chooses light, dark, light, dark light, light dark… and all the exotic shades and colors in between. Hypergraphia moved me. Writing and my aesthetic sensibility saved me. What I felt and could not understand found voice and acknowledgment on the page. So I too picked up my pen and sought redemption—there.
In spite of all I knew of my family’s history, it never dawned on me to think my frequent bouts of depression to be anything other than a protective response to very real sorrows. Many people suffer more than I, some less, but in the end the past must be past and life lived. I had reasons to be sad, and many more to be happy. Even my first (Harvard-trained) psychiatrist failed to pick up the mania piece when I described a strange experience that occurred when I was twenty-seven: for a few days I had the sense of spiritual connection, a seeing through reality that distinguished every “thing” my eyes beheld (from a broken branch, “Yield” signs, chemical names on the back of a medicine bottle, etc.) as a sign of Grace, accompanied by internal religious/literary visions, sleeplessness and obsessive writing. I described this after coming to her with depressive symptoms three years later. She thought my episode an isolated psychotic break. It wasn’t until I was thirty-six and seen by a doctor while in a second manic episode that I was given a diagnosis that described my experience in the medical model. The clues had been there all along: at times, little need to sleep, the incessant urge to write, periods of high productivity, self-confidence and well-being and the subsequent sloughs of depression, which I felt not so much as weepy sadness, but as lack of energy and affect. Life as a suffocating straightjacket—a gray, fuzzy, unfulfilling monotony slowly, and ever, tightening.
I am fortunate that despite my family’s fears, they cared for me when the mania was acute and didn’t infantilize me when well, despite any personal misgiving or concerns they might have had. Of course, depression was not seen as anything but the low end of normal and, since I have always had “walking” depression (fulfilled my duties, so to speak), that aspect of the condition had not been judged as troublesome, except by me. In addition to lifestyle practices such as meditation, yoga, exercise and nutrition that handle my depression, I do well on small amounts of a mood stabilizer, one that for me does not cause accompanying lethargy and fatigue. The slight aphasia and hypographia is annoying, at times frustrating, but worth it compared to symptoms and more enervating side effects. I have tried going off medication a couple of times, but the pleasure of hypomania exacted too high a price in the following depression. The one exception was when I was pregnant. I never felt so satisfied—happy, patient, even-keeled.
I miss the hypergraphia. Instead of writing being an urgent expression in my life, I must plan and work for it like ordinary mortals. Still, the memories of being one with a larger Consciousness, the flights of Eternity experienced in mania, will never leave me and continue to sustain and inspire me. I draw on them all the time. I liken mania to the epiphanies of the spiritual master’s deep discipline. It occurs to me that a master’s Enlightenment is regulated by practice over time, as the mind is made ready for the experience, so that it can be translated to others in an understandable way. Mania is a strike of lightning—brilliant and dazzling to the one struck, but frightening to those who behold it. Mania’s sudden revelation, without the containing practices, is overwhelming, and thus my attempt to describe to others in the moment interpreted as strange. This by no means invalidates the “truth” of the experience; just as knowing love has a chemical trace devalues it.
What I learned was in what I felt—Love is at the source of Everything. And we have the choice to be one with it or not. As Milton so brilliantly wrote, God made us “strong enough to stand but free to fall.” I read once that scientists had discovered what they initially thought were mushrooms peculiar to a large area out in the western U.S. It turned out they were a single underground fungus of which the heads were the only visible part. We are the single heads who, once born as individuals, forget our Cosmic Oneness, and our work here is to remember it. My plea to researchers is to investigate more qualitatively—to study the interface between spirituality, manic epileptic and other neurological phenomenon. And to clinicians—not to be so dismissive of the visionary reality of these conditions, even as continued and closer partnership with researchers creates more precise protocols for management of the most dangerous symptoms. What great future achievements of mankind would be compromised if the genes were disabled?
My stand is for the possibility of wellness—for altering the conversation about mental health in society, and for people with mental health conditions to get that they are a contribution no matter where they are on the illness/wellness spectrum. How would life look if this were realized? We are not our diagnoses, but people living with a chronic condition. We would relate to ourselves as managers rather than as patients. Clinicians and researchers would be partners in our health and well being, just as they are now to people with diabetes or heart disease. Suicide would be a conversation, not an option. We would be whole and complete just as we are—flaws and all—rather than something to be fixed. We are a gift in the world, and our “difference” would be missing in the experience of what it is to be human if we were not here to express it.
For myself, I would not change anything. Having manic-depression has allowed me to see through my identity to that recovered place of Joy. I have my condition now by choice. To stay on medication, despite the loss of the hypergraphia, is generated by my commitment to living well. I choose the process of wellness; work at being present to my daughter, my friends and family knowing it is ongoing and never complete. Medication, meditation, exercise, sharing with friends, traveling, involvement in work that gives back to others and satisfies me—whether it be volunteering at my daughter’s school, being active on two boards, or participating responsibly in programs for transformation—all these create and sustain a life I love. I must make my happiness rather than depend on the sudden, unpredictable rush of neurochemistry. The experience of manic-depression has made me who I am—connected me to others and, as my daughter would say, to the “piece of God” in all of us. It has opened me to the journey of Consciousness, to a vision that once had “must perpetually be remade” in the heart and life of now.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.